“Next Hour, I’m Flying a Drone…”

Students Study with a New Tool

By studying how a drone works, Zach and Jeremy are learning to use engineering software to design things

A small flying object that looks like a miniature UFO has been seen in the air near Caledonia lately. No need to worry, though — it’s just two high school students piloting a drone.

Seniors Zach Feyen and Jeremy Eggeman learned to fly the drone (technically, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle/UAV) as part of an independent study at Caledonia High School.

While drones are often associated with military operations, there are many other ways to use them, especially with the high-resolution images their cameras take. Businesses already using and testing them include real estate firms, police and fire departments, farms, athletic teams, hospitals, pizza delivery places and many more.

After his study with drones, Jeremy said “It will open up new doors and provide opportunities for us in the job field.”
Caledonia’s UAV measures about 10 x 18 inches and has four rotors and legs. It’s operated with a video game-style controller. A push of a button sends it up in the air once the settings are in place.

On a foggy day in early December, Zach, Jeremy and their independent study teacher, Jim Klomparens, brought the drone outside to the sidewalk to take it for a run. They tried and tried to get the drone in the air, but atmospheric conditions made it impossible to connect to GPS satellites, and the vehicle remained grounded. The Wi-Fi allows the camera to stream images back to a screen on the ground.

The pair tried recalibrating a couple of times, but still had no luck. Then Jordan Liszewski of the tech department stopped to watch (something people do when the students use the drone) and helped them get the drone up in the sky.

That’s when the cool part started. Once Zach pushed the button, the drone flew high into the wild gray yonder. It became a dot in the sky, then Zach hit the button for it to return, and it slowly appeared bigger and bigger.

The videos and pictures captured by the GoPro camera mounted on it was beamed to the screen of the controller. The camera’s fisheye lens setting showed the school grounds with curved edges, mimicking the curvature of the earth you’d see from space, and a close-up view of the sidewalk, looking like the moon’s surface.

Zach tried to get the drone to fly, but the fog made it difficult

New Ways to Learn

“It gives students the opportunity to see innovative technology of the future,” said Klomparens, who teaches mechanical drafting, engineering and computer science. “It provides views we haven’t seen before, which means new ways to learn.”

A lot of studying took place before the students were allowed to fly the drone. They spent their 2015 spring semester and the beginning of this school year learning about it. Besides learning how to operate it, the students also had to learn numerous federal regulations about drones, such as it being limited to going 400 feet in the air. Zach and Jeremy have taken it to 220 feet, but need to learn more to fly it higher.

Zach, who wants to go into engineering, is interested in seeing how drones will be part of the future of technology. “It’s good to get on the front edge,” he said.

Ebiri Nkugba, a Kent ISD stem consultant who is planning drone workshops in February for teachers in the district, believes drone technology will be huge. “It’s one of a couple of tech things that are going to be a big deal,” he said, comparing it to the revolution television and radio caused.

Classmates and others are curious about the drone, Zach said, and when it’s flying, people gather around. “Quite a few buddies have asked about it.”

That is just what educators want, because learning about drones means a load of students learning STEM skills. Engineering and computer programming, physics and geography standards, decision-making, business and data analysis are all part of what they learn, said Nkugba. Thousands of potential jobs are expected to open up when the FAA approves drones for commercial use, he added.

“STEM’s not just for the A plus-ers,” said Nkugba. “When I go to employers, they need someone who gets basic concepts in science and math. It’s got one foot in education and one foot in business.”

The Caledonia High School drone has taken pictures of the school’s construction site, its track, a golf course and a farmer’s fields. “Right now, they can’t see the color of the crops in the middle of fields,” said Klomparens in explaining why drones would be used by farmers. “With the drone video, they can see any discoloration and apply pesticide and save what’s growing there.”

Klomparens got a $2,200 grant from the Caledonia Education Association to help purchase the vehicle. He plans to select two more students to do independent study next year. “It’s a work in progress,” he said.

Other Kent ISD schools already working with drones include Grandville, Comstock Park and Forest Hills Northern, Nkugba said.

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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